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Simple Approaches to Enhance Young Students' Comprehension Abilities

Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.

-J.K. Rowling's character Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows-

Comprehension has a dual personality. Sometimes, meaning is out on display, but often, it's artfully obscured, requiring work to be interpreted. Even in texts for very young children, words and pictures work together on multiple levels. Good comprehension and knowing the conventions of the written word are advantageous for social and academic success.

Strategies to upskill your young students' comprehension


Read Regularly and Vary the Texts

A great start is regular reading of a variety of texts. Simple cardboard and picture books are ideal for infants and toddlers because they're sturdy and survive being carted around. Complex picture and chapter books encourage older children to become competent, responsive readers. Mix it up with poems, family letters, instructions, and recipes. Teach your students to bake your family's famous kugelhopf.


Surface the Structural Elements of Text

Texts have different purposes, and children benefit from understanding how a story is structured differently from a letter or a poem. Authors use universal elements that attune children to meaning across texts. The simplest elements in stories are setting, character, and plot. Stories also have themes, are told from someone's perspective, and have distinctive styles and tones.

Highlight some of these elements in a low-key, conversational way as you share texts. Say things like, "Tom is the main character," or, "This story is set on a farm." Ask questions like, "Do you remember when you visited your Grandpa's farm? Let's see what Tom does on the farm." By connecting the story to children's experiences, you engage their prior knowledge and practice the mental art of visualisation.

Students must often apply general knowledge and imagination to interpret texts. They should tune in with who is voicing the narrative. Is it a character talking or a storyteller?

Regarding style, you might alert your students to textual patterns. Eric Carle, Leo Leonni, and Margaret Wise Brown use repetition to structure their stories. The repetition supports word recognition and makes it easy to understand story progression.

Read with Expression

As you read, adapt your expression to capture the story's tone. Is it sad, as in Brian Wildsmith's classic favourite "Hunter and His Dog," or full of fun, like Lynley Dodd's "Hairy Maclary" books? These books' rich illustrations fuel sustained conversation.


Focus on Vocabulary

A text is a tapestry of words. If children don't understand them, holes appear in the fabric. They become confused about the connections and ultimately disengage. A child must hear a word in context many times before internalising it. Children of all ages need repetition, particularly as they hear more complex language. It's one thing to know what a balloon is and entirely another to know what elasticity, air pressure, compression, and deflation are.

If children don't understand words, explain them carefully and find examples in their day-to-day surroundings to demonstrate their meaning.

Practise Monitoring

Written language builds on itself, requiring readers to monitor what they have been told. Stories range across the past, present, and future but may not be in that order. Indeed, most authors withhold essential information and surprise the reader with events from a character's past well into the story. Help your students monitor and check they have all the important information before going on. But don't do it too often, as that spoils the flow of a story!

Encourage Questions and Surface Inferred Meanings

Questioning and prediction are essential comprehension skills. As you turn a page, say, "I wonder what will happen next? What do you think?" You can alert children to the implied messages in the pictures.

Ask questions

"How is Mr McGregor feeling?"

"How do you know?"

"What has made him so mad?"

"Gosh, that Peter Rabbit is a bit of a handful, isn't he?"

Interpret Story Illustration Conventions

Help your students pick up on facial expressions or graphic conventions like motion lines, speech bubbles, what is in the foreground or background, or cartoon frames. Make the meanings explicit so they can see how implied information is conveyed.

Explain Figurative Language

Older children's texts won't have picture cues, but they will understand facial expressions, body language, and motion descriptions to interpret implicit ideas. Authors use similes and metaphors to compare things by dislocating meaning from an original location and applying it somewhere wholly removed. Young children benefit from having metaphorical associations discussed in detail. If they read that "Mrs Mulligan was like a ship in full sail," take some time to discuss the imagery. Walk around the room like a ship in full sail. It feels bossy and fabulous.


Summarise the Text Together

A vital skill is summarising and extracting the key points from any text. Even young children can answer a friendly question like, "Now, what was that all about?"

Have Fun

Most of all, have fun. Reading is our invitation to tour the minds and worlds of others across distance and time. Create a reading haven with your students and share books that, as Marie Kondo would say, "spark joy."


Lili-Ann Kriegler (B. A Hons, H. Dip. Ed, M.Ed.) is an education consultant and author of ‘Edu-Chameleon’. Lili-Ann’s specialisations are in early childhood education (birth to nine years), leadership and optimising human thinking and cognition.  She runs her consultancy, Kriegler-Education. Find out more at


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